GENEVA (AP) — A nationalist party riding fears about mass migration to Europe appeared set Sunday to become the big winner in Swiss legislative elections, projections showed, capping a shift to the political right in the small Alpine nation.
The anti-immigration Swiss People's Party appeared set to gain 11 seats and the pro-business Free Democratic Party another three in the lower house of parliament, the National Council, according to the latest figures from state-backed broadcaster RTS. Together, the two leading parties of the right were set to hold 99 seats — just one short of half control of the 200-seat assembly.
The result marks a shift from the success of moderate parties in the last election four years ago: The biggest parties of the left and center all lost ground, in particular two Green parties, or held even. The outcome giving the People's Party nearly 30 percent surpassed poll predictions, while the Social Democrats — the country's second-largest party — unexpectedly lost support.
Final results for the National Council were expected by Monday. The makeup of the upper house, the 46-member Council of States, will be known in three weeks.
In Switzerland's arcane electoral calculus, the outcome sets the stage for back-channel negotiations for the real prize: Seats in the seven-person Federal Council, the executive branch, which makes decisions behind closed doors and by consensus, and includes the president — a rotating post. The incoming assembly will choose that body's makeup on Dec. 9, and the People's Party wants a second seat.
Under the niceties of the Swiss political system, the People's Party — already the country's most popular political movement — holds one seat, while the Free Democrats and Social Democrats each have two. The People's Party is particularly after the seat now held by Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who is from a far smaller, more moderated party that broke off from the nationalist party years ago.
"It's important to listen to the Swiss people," People's Party leader Toni Brunner said. "The population has to be able to express itself."
Before Sunday's balloting, the gfs.bern polling agency found that nearly half of Swiss listed immigration, integration and foreigners as their top concern. Issues like relations with the European Union, health care, unemployment and the environment scored only single digits as the top issue.
Those concerns about immigration are the sweet-spot issue of the Swiss People's Party, which wants to strengthen rules about who can enter and live — including from EU member states that virtually surround the Alpine country of about 8.2 million people and are by far the most important trading partner of Switzerland.
Sunday's election had shaping up as a new sign of European anxiety more than 500,000 migrants and refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere that have poured into Europe this year. Switzerland, which is not an EU member, has taken in far fewer than some member states like Germany and Austria — but the influx has still raised concerns about the Swiss that it may become a destination.
Another of the major issues ahead will be how Swiss leaders implement the results of a referendum February last year in which voters narrowly passed the People's Party's plan to cap immigration for all types of foreigners — including those from the EU — within three years. The result forced the government to take up a delicate task of revising its treaties with the 28-nation bloc.
In a patchwork Alpine country with four national languages, Switzerland's 26 regions predominate in daily lives more than the federal administration. The rules for voting were far from uniform: Two cantons elect their representatives by the proportional share of the overall vote gained, one allowed foreign residents to cast ballots, another set the minimum voting age at 16 — unlike 18 years old elsewhere.
Leaving a polling station in a well-to-do Geneva neighborhood, voter Rachel Payre said her main concerns were the environment, social protection and especially immigration. She encapsulated the concerns of many about migrants and refugees pouring into Europe from places like Syria, Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan among other places in recent months.
"We have to respect our own asylum policies," said the 21-year-old student in nature management. "We have to help those who are in danger, but we can't accept all of them. We don't have the infrastructure."
Another voter echoed that sentiment and went further.
Regine Besson, a 70-year-old retired former graphic designer who voted for a People's Party candidate, said Europe must do more to ensure that migrants and refugees get more help at home or in their neighboring regions. Besson said she was "disgusted" when she heard that some Iraqi migrants she knew "cheat" the system, such as by receiving state handouts but driving a large luxury car.
This story has been corrected to show that one of the parties in the 6th paragraph is called Free Democrats, not Christian Democrats, and the date of the Federal Council election is Dec. 9, not Dec. 8.